- Associated Press - Saturday, September 10, 2011

CINCINNATI (AP) - They know what fans think of them, and it’s not very much. There’s talk of an 0-16 season in Cincinnati, another year of setting new franchise lows with the same owner and coach presiding over a new cast of players.

How could the Bengals’ ignore it?

Better yet, how do they stop it?

Win one in Cleveland.

The Bengals could prove _ for one week, anyway _ that they’re not the worst team in Ohio, let alone the worst in the league. The intrastate rivalry on Sunday provides a chance to end all the talk about being No. 32 in the NFL.

“We haven’t really talked about that,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “It hasn’t really been our focus. But I would hope every competitor in here knows that and realizes that’s how people think about them, and that’s the way we have to fight.

“It’s no different than any other year. The teams that go out fighting the hardest and want it the most are going to win, and we’ve got to be one of those teams.”

The Bengals put up a good fight last season, but kept self-destructing with turnovers and penalties and botched plays during a 4-12 season that wasn’t the league’s worst. Carolina got that honor, going 2-14 while the Bengals finished with the same mark as Denver and Buffalo.

Much of the pessimism comes from the offseason.

Coach Marvin Lewis played out his contract, looking for signs that the front office was committed to doing what is needed to win. Then, he agreed to stay even though owner Mike Brown said there would be no significant change in how the team operates.

A week later, franchise quarterback Carson Palmer threw in the towel, saying he’d rather retire than finish his contract with the Bengals. Disgruntled receiver Terrell Owens left as a free agent, and receiver Chad Ochocinco was traded to New England.

The Bengals are left with one of their greenest offenses ever for a season opener. Second-round pick Andy Dalton will become the first Bengals rookie quarterback to start an opener since 1969, the team’s second year. First-round pick A.J. Green is the top receiver. Fourth-round pick Clint Boling starts at right guard in place of suspended Bobbie Williams. Tight end Jermaine Gresham and slot receiver Jordan Shipley are starting their second seasons.

That’s a lot of inexperience.

“We have a lot of young players,” running back Cedric Benson said. “But we’re strong in the offensive line. We’ve got one adjustment there (Boling). We’re strong in the backfield. But we’re still growing. It’s a great opportunity for us to come together.”

The Browns weren’t much better last year, going 5-11 to finish one spot ahead in the AFC North. The teams split their series, each winning at home. The Browns took the first game 23-20 in October, while the Bengals broke a 10-game losing streak with their 19-17 win at Paul Brown Stadium in December.

The newcomers will get their first experience with the Dawg Pound and the rivalry on Sunday afternoon.

“I know a little bit about it,” Dalton said. “We are definitely going to know when we are on the Dawg Pound side of the field. We’ll have to know when we can use silent counts and different things like that. It will be fun to get to know a lot more about it and be a part of it.”

Ochocinco loved to taunt the Browns and the Dawg Pound. He sent Pepto-Bismol to some Browns players one year, and did a leap into the Dawg Pound after a touchdown, only to get doused with beer and jeers. None of the current receivers is inclined to take on the Pound.

“I don’t think so, but we’re hoping our guys are spending plenty of time in their end zone,” Whitworth said. “That’s what we hope.”

The first half of the season provides the best chance for Cincinnati to show it’s not the worst. The Bengals’ first four opponents _ Cleveland, Denver, San Francisco and Buffalo _ were a combined 19-45 last season. Only one of the first eight opponents had a winning record last season _ Indianapolis, which has problems after losing quarterback Peyton Manning.

The chance is there. “We’ve got a lot to prove, there’s no doubt about it,” Whitworth said. “So I think guys are more worried about what we have to prove than what people think about them.”

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